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the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26
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1 Peter 3

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The apostle in this chapter continued giving instructions to classes or groups of people: (1) to wives (1 Peter 3:1-6); (2) to husbands; (3) to the community of Christians as a whole; and then, perhaps with the looming terror of the Neronian persecution in mind, he spoke of the blessedness of suffering for righteousness sake (1 Peter 3:13-22).

Verses 1-2

In like manner, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, even if they obey not the word, they may without the word be gained by the behavior of their wives; beholding your chaste behavior coupled with fear.

Be in subjection to your own husbands … This is in agreement with other extensive teaching on this in the New Testament, as in Ephesians 5:22ff, Colossians 3:18ff, and Titus 2:5. Note also that this is extended to include the submission of a Christian wife to a pagan husband. Although it may be supposed that both the husband and the wife, many times, would be converted together, there would inevitably be occasions when only the wife would become a Christian with her husband continuing in paganism. As Hart said, "Paul found it necessary to impress upon the Corinthian church that this incompatibility of religion did not justify dissolution of marriage (1 Corinthians 12:10ff)." J. H. A. Hart, Expositor’s Greek Testament, Vol. V (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), p. 63. As a matter of fact, there is no evidence that conversion to Christianity was ever considered to be a cancellation of any legal contract, not even the status of slavery.

If they obey not the word … "The word here is the gospel, and the clause means, ’If any are not Christians.’" Archibald M. Hunter, The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XII (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1957), p. 121. In this verse Peter means, "The husband should be the head of the house, and the wife should recognize the fact."

Beholding your chaste behavior … The literal meaning of 1 Peter 3:2 is, "Having kept, or when they have kept an eye on your chaste conversation." A. J. Mason, Ellicott’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p. 412. The husband in such a marriage would be jealously on the watch to see what effect would show in her life after embracing those foolish notions, as they might have appeared to him.

Verse 3

Whose adorning let it not be the outward adorning of braiding the hair, and of wearing jewels of gold, or of putting on apparel;

Does this mean that it is a sin for a Christian woman to wear a gold jewel, or to braid her hair, or to put on clothes? To ask this question is to answer it. "The unavoidable conclusion is that she must not depend on the display of the articles mentioned." E. M. Zerr, Bible Commentary, 1 Peter (Marion, Indiana: Cogdill Foundation, 1954), p. 259. It is the inordinate stress of outward adorning of the person which Peter here condemned. Despite the fact that in these times there is not the same emphasis upon such ostentation as in the days when Peter wrote, one cannot resist the thought that the apostles of Christ would take exception to what is being done with cosmetics, even today. In ancient times, extravagance of dress went beyond all reason. "Nero even had a room with walls covered with pearls; and Pliny saw Lollia Paulina, wife of Caligula, wearing a dress so covered with pearls and emeralds that it cost more than a million dollars." William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), p. 221.

Verse 4

but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in the incorruptible apparel of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.

Hidden man of the heart … Subsequent versions usually have "hidden person" of the heart; and as the passage deals with the duties of wives, this is better. The "hidden person" is the same as Paul’s "inner man" (Ephesians 3:16), meaning the actual person, the private being which every person knows himself to be. Paul described a real Jew as being a Jew who is one "inwardly," which stresses the same thought (Romans 2:28f).

Incorruptible apparel … "Paul assures us in this passage that moral characteristics gained in this life remain our characteristics in the next." All of this warning against outward display of expensive dress and ornaments indicates that many of the Christians of that period were wealthy, as does likewise Paul’s passage in 1 Timothy 6:17f.

Verse 5

For after this manner aforetime the holy women also, who hoped in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their own husbands:

In this, Peter reinforced his teaching with an appeal to the example of the godly women of the past.

Who hoped in God … There is a subtle indication in this that the position of Christian women to whom Peter wrote is superior to that enjoyed by the wives of the mighty patriarchs who merely "hoped" in God, whereas the Christians, having received the precious promises which their predecessors had only hoped for, were the actual possessors of the glorious gospel and all of its spiritual endowments.

Verse 6

as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose children ye are now, if ye do well, and are not put to fear by any terror.

As Sarah obeyed Abraham … It should not be thought that Sarah’s obedience to Abraham was in any sense Servility. On one occasion she ordered Abraham to "Cast out the bondwoman and her son," a "request" that sorely grieved and distressed Abraham; but he obeyed her, God himself commanding Abraham to do it (Genesis 20:10-12). Nevertheless, there was the utmost respect and honor accorded her husband by the noble Sarah.

Calling him lord … The significance of Sarah’s doing this lies in the fact that this is what she called him in her own heart, not merely when others might hear her. The real test of what one is, or what one thinks, lies in the content of what they say to themselves, not in what they might say to others (Genesis 18:12).

Whose children ye are … Paul extensively developed the thought of Christians being the children of Abraham, a principle given by Christ himself (John 8:39ff); and this is a further extension of the same truth. Being sons of Abraham, as all Christians are (Galatians 3:29), they are also children of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.

If ye do well … This qualifier stands over against all Christian privilege. The thing that disqualified the Jews of Jesus’ day as true sons of Abraham was disobedience; and the Christian must accept the application of the same principle to the members of the new Israel. If they do not do well, they shall become, like the disobedient Jews of Jesus’ day, "sons of the devil" (John 8:44).

And are not put in fear by any terror … The sentiment here is that of Proverbs 3:25, which seems to have been a chapter that Peter was very familiar with; for he quoted it again in 1 Peter 5:5. "Peter is apparently thinking of some attempt (by a pagan husband perhaps?) to scare a woman out of her Christian faith." Archibald M. Hunter, op. cit., p. 123. Justin Martyr relates the narrative of a certain woman who accepted Christianity and turned from a wicked and dissolute life, but whose husband continued stubbornly in the old ways; and after prolonged abuse, and even abandonment, she legally divorced him. However, her husband, being restrained by a court order from harming his wife, persecuted to death her Christian teacher. Justin Martyr, The Second Apology in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, n.d.), p. 188.

Verse 7

Ye husbands, in like manner, dwell with your wives according to knowledge, giving honor unto the woman, as unto the weaker vessel, as being also joint-heirs of the grace of life; to the end that your prayers be not hindered.

In Christianity, obligations are never a one-way street, but reciprocal by nature. If slaves have obligations, so do their masters; if children have duties toward their parents, so do parents have duties toward their children; if wives have duties to fulfill, so do their husbands. This is noticed extensively in Ephesians and Colossians where such duties are spelled out reciprocally for all of the classes here mentioned; but the principle is extended infinitely to include all obligations where human relationships are involved.

Dwell with your wives according to knowledge … Macknight translated this, "Husbands cohabit with your wives according to knowledge," James Macknight, Macknight on the Epistles, Vol. V (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, reprint, 1969), p. 473. which, in the light of the probable meaning of next to the last clause, appears to be the likely meaning of it.

As unto the weaker vessel … Modern women resent such a view as this; but the unanimous opinion of all mankind for centuries confirms it as a fact. Plato said, "Lighter tasks are to be given to women than to men because of the weakness of their sex"; Plato, as quoted by Archibald M. Hunter, op. cit., p. 124. and as long as golf courses have one set of rules for men and another for women, every country club on earth bears continual witness to it. In those lands where women do not enjoy the chivalrous preference and honor which Christianity has brought to them, their status is invariably one of progressive reduction and oppression. In turning away from Christianity and staking all of their hopes upon a newly won legal status, the great mass of womankind will eventually find that they have been woefully short-changed and cheated.

Giving honor unto the woman … The honor given to women through obedience to this great Christian ethic cannot fail to be forfeited through acceptance of the current temptation of women to rely, not upon this chivalrous honor which God through his gospel has conferred upon them, but upon a projected legal status which they view as giving them something better; whereas there is nothing better than the holy reverence that Christians have for the person and personality of women, and particularly their wives. This honor has been manifested in many small things, such as offering women seats in crowded rooms, or removing hats in elevators (things which have certainly gone out of style); but they were signs of a deeper respect and reverence for women which were essential features of the Christian ethic toward women. Of course, it could be that the respect and reverence continue without their external indicators; but it may well be feared that these too have gone out of style. For the Christian, the loving appreciation and holy regard for women can never go out of style, because they are firmly grounded in the word of the apostles, as in this verse.

As being joint-heirs of the grace of life … The meaning usually given to this clause makes "the grace of life" to be that of eternal life; and, of course, this is frequently the meaning of it throughout the New Testament; however, such a view of it here would make a pagan husband a joint-heir with his wife, of eternal life; and that cannot be true. It would seem better, then, to understand it as did Mason:

The grace of life is life in the natural sense, the mysterious and divine gift (not apart from one another, but conjointly), which they are privileged by the Creator’s primeval benediction (Genesis 1:28) to transmit. They have the power no archangel has, to bring human beings into existence. A. J. Mason, op. cit., p. 415.

To the end that your prayers be not hindered … As Kelcy noted, "This is an illustration of the fact that one cannot be right with God when his relations with another human being are wrong." Raymond C. Kelcy, The Letters of Peter and Jude Austin, Texas: R. B. Sweet Company, 1972), p. 67.

Verse 8

Finally, be ye all likeminded, compassionate, loving as brethren, tenderhearted, humbleminded:

Not merely women are the recipients of the honor which springs from the vital Christian recognition of the sanctity of all life, because every human being is recognized as a mortal brother, created in the image of God, a beneficiary of the blood of Christ, and a potential heir of everlasting glory! This respect and reverence belong to all men, in the Christian viewpoint; but even over and beyond that there is a vital and passionate love of the brethren especially. This love is designed to knit the Christian community into a unit having "likemindedness," having for all of its members a loving, compassionate tenderheartedness, free from the selfishness and self-centeredness which are the distress of the unregenerated; that is why "humble-mindedness" is a prerequisite of all who would participate in such a society.

Verse 9

not rendering evil for evil, or reviling for reviling; but contrariwise blessing; for hereunto were ye called, that ye should inherit a blessing.

Rendering evil for evil … This, of course, was an accepted ethic of paganism; but it is rejected by Christians. "Recompense to no man evil for evil" (Romans 12:17). "See that none render evil for evil unto any man" (1 Thessalonians 5:15). This was not an ethic developed by the apostles, but one handed down directly from the mouth of the Lord himself, who said, "Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you" (Luke 6:27,28). Likewise, all of the apostolic teachings should be understood to have originated, not with themselves, but with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Verses 10-12

For, He that would love life, And see good days, Let him refrain his tongue from evil, And his lips that they speak no guile: And let him turn away from evil, and do good; Let him seek peace, and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, And his ears unto their supplication: But the face of the Lord is upon them that do evil.

The apostle here quoted Psalms 34:12ff, but with variations from both the Hebrew and Septuagint (LXX) texts; but, as Mason said, "The divergence is probably not due to a confusion of memory, but (as often) designed to bring out an additional significance." A. J. Mason, op. cit., p. 416. Hart considered that Peter’s use of the variation "makes it mean eternal life … Only with this interpretation is the quotation pertinent to his exhortation." J. H. A. Hart, op. cit., p. 66. However, Kelcy said, "It seems clear that both the psalmist and the apostle use the word to refer to the present life on earth." Raymond C. Kelcy, op. cit., p. 69. We shall leave it to those skilled in such matters to determine which is correct; and from the point of view of this writer, it makes no difference, being true both ways! Those who would love eternal life must heed the exhortations here; and likewise those who would have a joyful life on earth must follow the same instructions.

Let him seek peace, and pursue it … The true peacemaker is not passive but active, and must take the lead, not merely in keeping the peace himself but in the earnest inducement of others to do likewise.

The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous. This is a reference to the providence which God exercises over his people. Jesus said, "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen" (Matthew 28:20); and that has the same meaning as the clause here.

But the face of the Lord is upon them that do evil … Not only are wicked men denied the solicitous care of God, but their unrighteousness has actually incurred the displeasure of God. The Lord is angry with the wicked every day.

Verse 13

And who is he that will harm you, if ye be zealous for that which is good?

Peter begins in this paragraph to speak guardedly about the terrible persecution coming upon them. He did not mean by this question that Christians were not in any danger of bodily harm from their enemies; what it meant was that no matter what might happen to their bodies, nothing, really, could happen to them. Peter was in complete harmony with the Lord in such a viewpoint. "It means that men and devils may do their worst, as they did to Jesus, and cannot harm us." A. J. Mason, op. cit., p. 417. Our Lord himself said:

But ye shall be delivered up even by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolk, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake. And not a hair of your head shall perish. In your patience ye shall win your souls (Luke 21:16-19).

We must believe, therefore, that it was this safety through persecution that Peter had in mind here. There is a quotation from G. A. Studdent-Kennedy regarding one who was asked if prayer would render a man invulnerable to shot and shell, and who replied that "Fellowship with God through prayer would make a man sure that though his body was shattered, his soul would be untouched." Archibald M. Hunter, op. cit., p. 128.

Verse 14

But even if ye should suffer for righteousness’ sake, blessed are ye: and fear not their fear, neither be troubled;

Even if ye should suffer … What does this mean? "It means the horrors of capital punishment." A. J. Mason, op. cit., p. 417. The undeniable meaning of "Christ also suffered for sins once" (1 Peter 3:18) confirms this understanding of "suffer" here.

Fear not their fear … Christians must not fear the things that men generally fear. The terror that men can bring to those having their own value-judgments is indeed awesome; but the child of God lives by a different set of values.

Neither be troubled … Like in so many other places in this great epistle, there is a suggestion here of the words of Jesus, who said, "Let not your heart be troubled" (John 14:1).

Verse 15

but sanctify in your hearts Christ as Lord: being ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear:

The prophecy of Isaiah has this: "Sanctify the Lord of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread" (Isaiah 8:13). It is clear that Peter’s thought in this and the preceding verses is clearly connected with the words of Isaiah, but there is a notable difference:

Peter here substituted the Saviour’s name where the prophet wrote "the Lord of hosts, Jehovah Sabaoth" - a change which would be nothing less than impious if the Lord Jesus Christ were not truly God. B. C. Caffin, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 22, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 131.

Sanctify … Christ as Lord… What is meant by sanctifying the Lord? Mason tells us that linguistically it is closely akin to "hallowing" the name of the Father in heaven, as in the Lord’s prayer (the only other place in the New Testament where this expression occurs), defining "to sanctify" as "to recognize, in word and deed, his full holiness, and therefore to treat him with due awe." A. J. Mason, op. cit., p. 418.

Ready always to give an answer … Mason regarded this admonition as having special reference to the occasion of a Christian’s "being called into a law court to give an account." Ibid. There is no reason, however, to limit the meaning in such a way. All Christians, at all times, should have the full grasp of the rational basis for espousing the holy religion they have accepted, as well as possessing a thorough knowledge of the great doctrines of the New Testament; for there will be countless occasions in every life when such knowledge and understanding can be made a vehicle for enlisting others in the holy faith.

Concerning the hope … The primacy of hope in the motivation of Christians shines in this, there being a glorious sense in which "We are saved by hope" (Romans 8:24). The meaning here is exactly the same as "concerning the faith," both expressions referring to "the Christian religion."

Yet with meekness and fear … Why this? There are many reasons: (1) Christians should manifest meekness at all times. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5); but in addition to this, there is no situation in life that demands such an attitude any more than that which appears on an occasion of religious questioning and response. (2) A lack of meekness can prejudice judges, if one is in a court of law. (3) A lack of it can antagonize earnest questioners whose seeking after the truth can be easily frustrated by an arrogant, overbearing, or discourteous attitude. And why fear? (1) In all situations where a Christian is attempting to answer the questions of others, or to restore one who has fallen into sin, there is danger to the Christian himself. As Paul put it, "Restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, looking to thyself, lest thou also be tempted" (Galatians 6:1). (2) There should be fear that the answers might not be given in the right spirit, or that they might not be correct. The failure of many really to know the truth about their own religious views is widespread; and every teacher should concern himself to know the right answers, to avoid becoming himself a teacher of falsehood. Fear is a proper motive for all who presume to teach the word of the Lord.

Verse 16

having a good conscience; that, wherein ye are spoken against, they may be put to shame who revile your good manner of life in Christ.

Having a good conscience … This key admonition recurs again and again in this epistle: "zealous for good works … for righteousness’ sake … sanctify the Lord … with meekness and fear, etc.," all of these in this very paragraph.

Wherein ye are spoken against … They were spoken against because of the manner of their lives; but they are told to make their lives so beautiful that they will shame the evil critics.

In Christ … This is one of the great phrases of the New Testament, being used 164-172 times (depending on the version) in the writings of Paul alone; but although Paul laid the greatest stress on it, the conception of being "in Christ" is not Pauline, going back to our Lord himself who said, "Ye are in me and I in you" (John 14:20). Also, "I am the vine and ye are the branches; he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit" (John 15:5). What is meant by being "in Christ"? The clue … is in the Hebrew conception of corporate personality." Archibald M. Hunter, op. cit., p. 130. The church is Christ, and is called Christ’s spiritual body. See the extensive comment on this in my Commentary on Romans, pp. 118-154, especially under "Jesus Christ, Inc.," p. 123. "To be in Christ therefore is to be a member of the redeemed society, i.e., the church, of which Christ is head … the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion." Ibid.

Verse 17

For it is better, if the will of God should so will, that ye should suffer for well-doing than for evil-doing.

In this verse, Peter seems to accept the certainty of Christian suffering; for suffering is a basic component of life on earth. "If we suffer with him, we shall also reign with him" (Romans 8:17). However, there is a more specific suffering in view here. "Suffer," as in 1 Peter 3:14,18, here means "suffering death." As Mason saw it: "Peter was thinking of the legal process of 1 Peter 3:15,16, coming to a verdict of guilty. He was himself daily expecting such a death." A. J. Mason, op. cit., p. 419.

Verse 18

Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;

Suffered for our sins … The great atonement of Christ is denoted by this. Paine pointed out that there are visible in this epistle "three stands of Peter’s thought about the atonement." Stephen W. Paine, Wycliffe Bible Commentary, New Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 977. It is compared to the paschal lamb (1 Peter 1:19), the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 (1 Peter 1:24), and to the scapegoat (1 Peter 1:24).

Suffered for sins once … "Once" is the great New Testament word from the Greek [@hapax], meaning "once for all." W. E. Vine, op. cit., p. 137 (vol. iii). It is used of: (1) Christ’s coming in human form (Hebrews 9:26); (2) Christ’s death (Hebrews 9:28); (3) the deliverance to mankind of the faith (Jude 1:3); (4) the offering of Christ’s blood in heaven (Hebrews 9:12,26); (5) the appointment to die (Hebrews 9:27); (6) God’s shaking the earth and the heavens so as to remove them (Hebrews 12:27); and (7) the suffering of Christ for sins (1 Peter 3:18).

The righteous for the unrighteous … Let it be strictly observed that Peter in this does not say, "That he might bring God to us," but "that he might bring us to God." There was nothing in the atonement that was designed to change God in any manner; for it was men who needed to be changed. The separation between God and man "is one-sided." A. J. Mason, op. cit., p. 420. The suffering of Christ was not to satisfy God but for the purpose of getting the attention of rebellious men. God already loved humanity before the atonement was even possible.

Put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit … The first clause is clear enough being a reference to the crucifixion of our Lord; but there is a wide disagreement among scholars as to the meaning of "made alive in the spirit."

Made alive … It is amazing that some read this as if it meant "kept alive," or "continued alive"; whereas the true meaning of the words, as in the text, is "made alive," resurrected! "In the New Testament, these words are never used in the sense of maintained alive, or preserved alive." Albert Barnes, Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1953), p. 176. Therefore, these words must be understood to mean the resurrection of the Son of God from the grave, the same being the only way in which Jesus Christ was ever "made alive."

But who did the making alive? This also is easily resolved. It was achieved by "the spirit of holiness" (Romans 1:4), as Paul said, significantly using the expression in connection with "the flesh" of Christ which was of the seed of David, much as Peter referred to "flesh" which was crucified. It was through that same "eternal spirit" that Christ offered himself to God (in the crucifixion) (Hebrews 9:24); and by that very same Holy Spirit that he was conceived in the womb of Mary (Matthew 1:20). In fact, the very Spirit which indwelt Christ throughout his earthly sojourn was the Holy Spirit dwelling in him without measure (John 3:31), and so uniquely associated with Christ that the Holy Spirit could not even come to the earth to dwell in the apostles until Christ should go back to heaven! (John 16:7). There is thus little doubt, therefore, that it was the Holy Spirit who raised Christ from the dead, and the translators could have saved a lot of misunderstanding if they had capitalized Spirit in this passage. We reject the intricate arguments from the "antithesis" in the Greek text which is said to refute this; because, as Barnes said, "So far as the mere use of this word (spirit) is concerned, it might easily refer to his own soul, to his divine nature, or to the Holy Spirit." Ibid. Men who speak learnedly about the alleged difference between the divine nature of Christ, his human soul, and the blessed Holy Spirit which was in Christ throughout his earthly sojourn are unconvincing.

But, did not Christ declare that he himself would raise himself up from the grave (John 10:17)? Yes, indeed; but there are hundreds of examples in the New Testament where something done by one member of the Godhead is attributed to another member of it. The resurrection of Christ is also ascribed to the Father (1 Corinthians 6:14; 2 Corinthians 4:14; Ephesians 1:20), thus being ascribed to all three, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Verse 19

in which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison,

In which … The Spirit by which the preaching in view here was done was the blessed Holy Spirit, by whom and through whom all the preaching has been done throughout the ages. To make the spirit by which Christ preached, as here, to have been his human spirit, or anything else except the Holy Spirit, involves men in making distinctions that are simply not discernible in the word of God.

He went and preached … Commentators with a theory to uphold make a big thing out of the went," encountering innumerable difficulties when they suppose that he went "while dead and buried"! As a matter of fact, "he went and preached" is just a Biblical way of saying he preached. "Such expressions (he went) are often redundant in Greek." Ibid., p. 177. Herodotus often used such expressions as "he spoke, saying," or "he speaking, said," and we have the same kind of an expression in "he went and preached." "No particular stress should be laid on the clause he went." Ibid. Speaking of the preaching of the apostles themselves, Paul said that Christ "came and preached peace to you that were afar off" (Ephesians 2:17); but Christ preached to the Ephesians through human instruments, nevertheless it is said that he "came and preached" to them. Therefore, "If Christ is said by Paul to go and do, what he did by his apostles, Christ may with equal propriety be said by Peter to go and do what he did by Noah." James Macknight, op. cit., p. 480.

Unto the spirits in prison … The meaning of this is that the preaching mentioned in the previous verse was directed to living men and women on the earth at the time the preaching was done, but who at the time of Peter’s mentioning this were "in prison," that is, in a deceased state, under the sentence of God like the angels who are cast down and reserved unto the day of judgment and destruction of the wicked. There is another possibility, namely, that the whole antediluvian world to whom the preaching was directed were said by Peter in this passage to have been "in prison" at the time of the preaching of Noah. If that is what he meant, then the figure harmonizes perfectly with Jesus’ preaching to the citizens of Nazareth and others of that generation, referring to his message as "a proclamation of release to the captives," that is, the captives in sin (Luke 4:18). There is no Scriptural reason whatever for not referring to that whole generation which rejected the preaching of Noah as "the souls in prison"; however, Peter wrote, "spirits in prison"; and, for that reason, we must refer the words "spirits in prison" to their present status at the time of Peter’s writing. They, like the fallen angels, were then "spirits in prison." Ages earlier, they were living men and women who rejected the preaching of Christ through Noah. Peter here spoke of them, by way of identification, as "spirits in prison"; but there is not a line in this passage which requires us to believe that Christ preached personally to those "spirits in prison" during the three days his body lay in the tomb! See Note 1 at end of the chapter.

It is clear then that the meaning attributed to "spirits in prison" turns altogether upon the fact of when the preaching was done. The next verse makes it certain that it was during the generation of Noah, a time when the "spirits" here mentioned were not "spirits" merely, but "souls"; therefore, "spirits in prison" is a reference to their status at the time Peter wrote.

Verse 20

that aforetime were disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water:

That aforetime were disobedient … "Aforetime" flies like a banner over the whole passage; those souls Peter identified as "spirits in prison" when he wrote were living souls generations earlier in the time of Noah. In the time of Noah they were disobedient; in the time of Noah Christ preached to them; in the time of Noah, most of them rejected salvation; in the time of Noah "few" were saved. A few "spirits"? no indeed! a few "souls," that being what all of them were at the time of the preaching. There is absolutely no hint whatever in the entire New Testament of any spirits, at any time whatever, ever having been saved, or for that matter, even preached to. All of the nonsense that one reads about Christ preaching to the spirits in Hades is a fabrication built like a superstructure above and beyond the New Testament text. Of course, the selfishness of men enters into such interpretations. Men would like to have a second chance. Having rejected Christ in their bodies, they dream of getting preached to "as spirits"! The popular notion held by many that Christ preached to disembodied spirits is rationally inconceivable. If he had done such a thing, why should Noah’s generation alone, of all who ever lived on earth, have been singled out as the beneficiaries? No. We must agree with Nicholson:

The passage holds out no hope for the impenitent; it forbids the notion that those who during their earthly life refuse the gospel of God’s grace may have a second chance in the world beyond, and may be ultimately saved. Roy S. Nicholson, Beacon Bible Commentary, Vol. 10 (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1967), p. 291.

When the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah … This is a further elaboration of the "aforetime," just mentioned. That "aforetime" was "when" the longsuffering of God waited.

In the days of Noah … This is another phrase pertaining to the "aforetime"; it was in the days of Noah.

While the ark was a preparing … This is still another clause pertaining to the "aforetime"; therefore, there is really no excuse for construing the events of these verses as things that happened during that three days and nights Jesus was in the tomb. Furthermore, the "aforementioned" time is the only time specified in the whole paragraph.

Days of Noah … Why is Noah introduced in this context? It was because of the figure of our salvation inherent in the event related here; and what the apostle designs to show by this is that the same spirit that preached through Noah is exactly the same Spirit now preaching through the apostles, a fact Peter had already categorically stated in 1 Peter 1:11. Another very obvious purpose of Peter is to encourage the saints under threat of impending persecution by calling attention to the fact of "few" being saved through the great debacle of the flood, with the inherent warning that it may also be "few" who will be saved through the looming terror. Thus it is clear that the preaching Jesus did (1 Peter 3:19) was done through Noah. The surmise that Christ in some spiritual state would have done any preaching is only that. If Christ had desired to communicate to either spirits or living souls in any kind of spiritual state, it would not have been necessary for him to enter our earth-life at all. Not even the Holy Spirit addresses men directly; as Jesus said, "He shall not speak from himself" (John 16:13).

While the ark was a preparing … is a reference to a period of some 120 years during which the ark was built, and during which Noah preached to the rebellious world. He is called a "preacher of righteousness" (2 Peter 2:5). Some who would interpret this Scripture as meaning that Christ preached through some other instrumentality than that of the Holy Spirit make various arguments from the Greek text; but, as Barnes said (even while not agreeing that it was by the Holy Spirit), "The language here is consistent with the thought that Christ did the preaching through the instrumentality of another, to wit, Noah." Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 178.

Wherein few … eight souls were saved … These were Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth, and their respective wives.

Through water … Just as the waters of the flood separated between Noah’s family and the rebellious antediluvian world, just so the water of Christian baptism separates between God’s people today and those who are unsaved. That analogy Peter would promptly state.

Verse 21

which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ;

After a true likeness … The figure, pattern, or type in this verse is the salvation of Noah’s family "by water." The common misunderstanding that makes baptism the figure in this place is totally wrong, baptism being the antitype, the reality which was only symbolized by the salvation of Noah. How does the salvation of Noah prefigure the salvation of Christians?

(1) It was the water of the flood that separated Noah from the disobedient generation that perished; and it is the water of Christian baptism that separates between the saved of today and the disobedient who perish.

(2) Noah (and family) were borne through the flood for a period of nine months; and as Macknight noted, "Noah’s coming forth from the water to live again on the earth, after having been full nine months in the water, might fitly be called his being born of water." James Macknight, op. cit., p. 483. Christians too must be "born of water" (John 3:5).

(3) The same water which destroyed the antediluvians was the water which bore up the ark and delivered Noah and his family into a new life. It is the water of baptism that destroys the wicked today, in the sense that they rebel against God’s command, belittle and despise it, either refusing to do it at all, or downgrading any necessity of it, even if they submit to it; while at the same time, it is the water of baptism that buries the Christian from his past and "into Christ," from which he, like Noah, "rises to walk in newness of life."

(4) The same element is prominent in both deliverances, that of Noah and that of the Christian, the same being water; and it is exactly the same kind (who ever heard of different kinds of water?) of water that is evident in both salvations, his and ours. The water that caused the flood is one with the water of Christian baptism.

(5) It was the water of the flood which washed away the filth of that evil generation; and it is the water of Christian baptism that, in a figure, washes away the sins of Christians (Acts 22:16). There is a variation in the figure here, which Peter pointed out; namely, that, whereas it was actual filth that was washed away by the flood, it is moral and spiritual filth which are washed away in baptism. The former affected the flesh and not the conscience; the latter affected the conscience but not the flesh.

(6) Only a few were saved through the flood; and (in the relative sense) only a few will be saved in Christ.

Doth now save you, even baptism … This is as awkward a translation of this as the ingenuity of man could have devised. "Baptism" is the subject of the clause and should be first, reading, "Even baptism doth now save you." This simple statement of truth should upset no one, for Christ himself said, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16); and Peter here said no more than what the Lord said there.

Not the putting away of the filth of the flesh … In this clause, Peter pointed out a variation in the figure; whereas it was the polluted flesh that was destroyed and removed by the flood, it is a moral and spiritual cleansing effected in baptism. Some have made this an excuse for saying, "Peter is telling them that it (baptism) is no external rite." A. J. Mason, op. cit., p. 422. It is hard to conceive of a more irresponsible statement by a Christian scholar than this one. All history denies the notion that baptism is not an external rite. On the other hand, it most assuredly is an external rite. Christ was baptized in a river. It took a laver (baptistery) to perform it in the days of the apostles (see Titus 3:5, where the "laver of regeneration" is mentioned, and comment in my Commentary on Titus, pp. 145-147); it was performed in pools of water like those men pass by on the road when traveling (Acts 8:36); and even today there is hardly a church of any name in all Christendom that does not have in its place of worship either a baptistery or the vestige of one (the font); and it may be inquired where did these come from(?) if Christian baptism is not an external rite? Of course, it is also a fact that baptism is not merely, or solely, an external rite.

But the interrogation of a good conscience toward God … The word of the Lord seems to have been designed in order to give men who will not believe it some kind of crutch upon which to rely in their unbelief. Someone has said, "There is hardly a text in the Bible that does not have a nail in it where the devil can hang his hat." The word here falsely rendered "interrogation" is exactly that. In the Greek language, as in the English, there are many words that have multiple meanings, some of those meanings being actually contradictory, and this is such a word. In English, for example, the word "fast" may be applied to a horse that wins the Derby, or to one that is tied fast to a post. Take the English word "cut": (1) It means a mountain pass; (2) a wound inflicted by a knife; (3) to skip, as when one cuts a class; (4) the cut-off in golf tournaments; (5) to adulterate, as when hard drugs are cut, etc., etc.

Similarly, the Greek word here rendered "interrogation" has a number of meanings: "answer," "interrogation," "appeal," "inquiry," "craving," "prayer," and "pledge." Archibald M. Hunter, op. cit., p. 134. Three of these meanings, appeal, craving and prayer, if used in the translation would indicate that baptism is submitted to as a craving, appeal or prayer for a good conscience, whereas the others would be something that a good conscience already received before baptism does. These meanings are antithetical, and the true meaning must be determined by Peter’s teaching elsewhere. Did he mean that Christians before they are baptized have already received a good conscience and that their baptism is only the response that a good conscience gives; or did he mean that in order to receive a good conscience one must be baptized? It is the conviction of a lifetime, on the part of this writer, that it is the latter meaning which is true. No man, as long as he has not obeyed the divine commandment to be baptized, can ever have, even if he should live 200 years, a good conscience as long as he is unbaptized. Therefore, full agreement is felt with Nicholson’s endorsement of the New American Standard Bible’s rendition thus:

And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you - not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (NASB). Roy S. Nicholson, op. cit., p. 292.

Peter’s great Pentecostal sermon has the same meaning, where he declared that believers should repent and be baptized in order to receive the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). There is further comment on this in my Commentary on Hebrews, pp. 200-201.

Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ … Peter kept coming back again and again to the fountain source of all blessing. Even the obedience of the gospel by sinners is not the source of their redemption, despite being one of the conditions of its bestowal. The resurrection of Christ is everything in the Christian religion. Both in 1 Peter 1:3 and here, Peter did not fail to stress this.

Zerr was faithful to point out that there is also in this text an effective argument for immersion as the action that truly is baptism in the New Testament sense. "Had the rite been performed by sprinkling, all would have known that such an act could not cleanse anything," E. M. Zerr, op. cit., p. 261. certainly not any filth from the body.

Verse 22

who is on the right hand of God, having gone into heaven; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.

The same magnificent truth proclaimed by Jesus in Matthew’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) is also enunciated here. The universal power and godhead of the Son of God is a cornerstone of Christian doctrine.

Note 1. In the interpretation above, the term "spirits in prison" was construed as a reference to people who at the time Peter referred to them were deceased, therefore "spirits" in prison, in the sense of their being like the fallen angels imprisoned until the day of their doom at the final judgment. In further support of that view the following is added. The Tyndale Commentary offered the objection that "spirits in prison" is not elsewhere used in the Bible to describe departed human spirits. F. F. Bruce, Answers to Questions (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 128. However, both wicked spirits, that is, spirits of wicked people, and the spirits of the just made perfect (Hebrews 12:23) are thus referred to if the word "spirits" (of persons plainly said in the next line to have been disobedient) is here construed as a reference to the spirits of wicked men; and there is no logical reason why this should not be done. If it was proper to refer to the "spirits of just men," it is also correct to refer to "spirits in prison" as a designation of the wicked men deceased, for the very fact of their being "in prison" designates them as wicked.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Peter 3". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/1-peter-3.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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